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Lessons from Ruth: The Poor, Community & Belonging

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Every morning as I take my boys to school I see them in the median at major intersections.  Their signs say something along the lines of "will work for food."  I have also seen the news stories showing instances where otherwise perfectly able-bodied people dress down and panhandle like this.  In some cases I have heard of people bringing in about $1,000 a month.  That's certainly not enough to raise a family on - especially here in San Diego - but it's "nothing to sneeze at" either.

For the purposes of this post, I'll set aside the valid concerns about whether the local pan handler is truly needy and ask the question: What is the story behind these people and their situation?  Where do they come from?  I'll assume they lived a "normal" life at some point in the past.  How did "normal" give way to becoming dependent on the charity of others?

In 'Vital Friends', a book published a few years ago, author Tom Rath, a Gallup researcher, wrote about a set of questions which were posed to two control groups.  One group was made up of 'formerly homeless' people.  These were people who at one point in their lives were on the streets, but who had been able to recover a sense of normalcy: holding down a job, paying the bills, etc.  The other group consisted of the chronically homeless.  These were the people who remained on the streets.

Rath discusses the kinds of questions both groups were asked, but focuses on one question in particular because of how stark the difference in answers was between the groups.  Those in the 'formerly homeless' group - to a man and woman - had an answer to the question.  Those in the chronically homeless group did not.  The question?

"Who expects you to be somebody?"

To the last person interviewed, the answer among the formerly homeless was quick and decisive. "Oh, that would be my friend so-and-so."  Or maybe "My friend Mary from church is always pushing me to better myself."  Not infrequently it would be a teacher, maybe at the local community college.  But for the chronically homeless, there was no one they could think of who expected something better from them.

The stark contrast points us in a certain direction when considering the needs of the poor and homeless in our midst.  The book of Ruth in the TaNaK/Old Testament provides a foundation for a distinctly Judeo-Christian ethic concerning the poor.  And a developing cultural trend rounds out the picture for how we - both as members of 'civil society' (i.e. churches, synagogues and other local community groups) and as conservatives might respond to this challenge.

Belonging Before Believing

The cultural trend at work here is something younger Evangelical writers have noticed for some time.  In our churches there seems to be a movement away from affiliating with a church based on what you already believe.  Those who are my age (born in 1967) or older are probably familiar with a dynamic where, having already decided what you believed concerning Christian doctrine, you affiliated yourself with a local church accordingly.  The membership application had a bunch of check boxes on it - signifying that you agreed with the church's 'statement of faith'.  In short, you believed, and then you belonged.

To a large degree those days are fading, if they are not gone altogether.  Among young people especially there is a post-modern emphasis on community and experience. These young people are perfectly willing to consider Christianity's claims on truth.  But those claims are no longer established by argumentation and 'apologetics'.  Today they are established by the experience of genuine community.  Young people come to believe only after having come to belong.   This is all a bit jarring for the older generation who tend to assume the rightness of the progression from believing to belonging.  But as I'll try to show below, the post-modern desire to belong first actually may open our minds and hearts to possibilities for transformative, powerful ministry to the poor.

Belonging, Dignity and Loyalty

And this is where the story of Ruth comes into the picture.  If we read Rath's research on the homeless, and then consider the arc of the story of Ruth, an interesting parallel can be seen.  A man from Bethlehem named Elimelech sojourns with Naomi his wife and sons in the land of Moab during a famine in Judah.  The sons marry Moabite women, one of whom is Ruth.  The father dies, and then some years later so too do the sons, leaving Naomi "bereft of her two children and her husband." (1:5).

This is the backdrop of the neediness of Naomi and Ruth; it is a backdrop of loss.  Rath's research shows that among the homeless, in a very large percentage of instances the triggering event which cascades into a person going from a 'productive member of society' to being homeless is the loss of an important relationship.  This loss might be a death in the family, a divorce, or some other break in a 'vital' relationship.  Losing a job, especially for men, can also produce this sense of loss - a loss of the dignity which work, and the relationships surrounding it, provide.

Rath's research shows that homelessness is, at the very least, closely related to how loss produces isolation.  The story of Ruth, though, is a story of loyalty and belonging in the face of loss.  Oprah, Naomi's other daughter-in-law returns to her family at the urging of Naomi.  But Ruth refuses.  In what is some of the most poetic, terse yet forceful and dramatic dialog in the TaNaK/Old Testament, Ruth responds:
Then [Naomi] said, “Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.”
Ruth has found dignity in her belonging to Naomi, and holds fast to that dignity with an unswerving loyalty.  This interplay of belonging, dignity and loyalty is the foundation of the lesson the Scriptures have for us here.

Belonging, Dignity and Work

Chapter 1 of Ruth leaves us by noting that Naomi and Ruth returned to Bethlehem in Judah at the beginning of the barley harvest.  The backdrop to what follows, though, is extremely important - both to the story and to our perspective as conservatives on the matter of what we might call the 'social safety net'.  The law of Moses, in Leviticus 23:22, says the following:
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.
This was their 'safety net'; the poor were to be allowed onto the land owner's fields to 'glean' from the harvest.  This was simply a matter of picking up what had been dropped.  A land owner who was observant would not harvest the edges of his land and would be careful not to pick up ears (of barley in this case) that might be dropped along the way.  And we meet a certain land owner in the story who was more than observant; we see a picture of how grace exceeds the requirements of the Law.

But even before this, we see initiative.  Ruth asks Naomi's permission to go out and seek favor from land owners to glean from their harvest.  It is important to see how Ruth's initiative is what carries the narrative to where we meet Boaz.  What we see in the dialog between Ruth and Boaz is crucial to our understanding of the story - we see an invitation to belong.  Boaz invites Ruth to stay only on his land, and invites her to remain among the maids, to drink what is drawn for the servants, and to eat together with him and his servants.  And in his instructions to his servants we see Boaz insist that Ruth be treated with dignity - twice enjoining them not to insult or rebuke her:
When she rose to glean, Boaz commanded his servants, saying, “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not insult her. Also you shall purposely pull out for her some grain from the bundles and leave it that she may glean, and do not rebuke her."
If you are like me, it is easy to become jaded at the sight of pan handlers on the median.  The sign might say 'will work for food' but the reality is usually very different.  I will admit here that I do not give money to pan handlers, nor do I intend to start.  But where I have to draw the line in light of the Scriptures is the attitude - even while not to their face - which insults them for their sloth.  There is too much I do not know.  I don't know what they lost that they would have gone from being a productive member of society to being dependent on others.  I also do not know what is done with the money they do receive.  The only thing I know is that by giving I might feel good about myself.  But that is clearly not enough.

Belonging, Dignity and Friendship

This, then, brings us back to Rath's research.  At church recently we encountered a homeless couple.  They joined our Sunday service, but began hitting our people up for money.  This, of course, became an issue that was brought up to us in leadership.  The people were not unsympathetic, but were concerned that their response be consistent and guided by the leadership.

It is our practice on Sunday to prepare a range of finger foods and to repair to the fellowship hall after service for a light lunch.  And we almost always have more food than we consume.  So we decided that the church's response would be to sit down with this couple and make it clear to them that while they were welcome in the service and especially after for a meal, they were not welcome to be asking our people for money.  We told them we would be happy to ensure they at least had one opportunity each week to eat as much as they could.  But we told them something else: I raised it with them being familiar with Rath's research.

"We don't have money, but we do have something more valuable - we have friendship," I said.  "But you have to understand that if we are your friends, we will expect something from you.  We will expect you to make something positive of the opportunities you might have.  You will always be welcome here and you will not be insulted, nor will we allow others to do so in our presence."

We talked with them about their lives before falling on hard times.  I was not surprised to hear that a divorce was what started the man down the road to dependency.  In the months that have passed I have seen some discouraging things, and I have seen some positive developments as they have dropped in from time to time, a few Sundays ago being the most recent.

It is important to note here that we did not make 'church membership' a requirement for whatever help we might provide.  But we did make 'belonging' the central expectation.  This is a hard distinction to make and explain sometimes, but our cultural trend toward belonging before believing actually is making it easier.  We are certainly concerned for their salvation, but for their salvation to be 'whole' in the sense of becoming a disciple of Christ there must first be a sense of belonging simply for its own sake.  I am convinced that the dignity which comes from belonging - something any group of believers, big or small, can offer - is the true need of the homeless and offers the best chance of seeing the ultimate aim fulfilled - redemption.

Belonging, Dignity and Redemption

And the story of Ruth is a story of redemption on so many different levels.  While another relative was before Boaz to redeem that which belonged to Elimelech, Boaz presents the matter in such a way as the righteousness of intentions is clear.  If it is just land, the intervening relative is interested.  But once it becomes clear Ruth is included that Elimelech's name might continue, his intentions change.  Boaz, next in line, attends to the complete redemption of Elimelech's name that Naomi's household be taken care of fully.

But more importantly, the end of the book of Ruth shows us the larger purpose of the story.  For Israel, the end of the story ties the kingdom of David back through Judah by way of his son Perez.  The reader familiar with Genesis will not miss the allusion in how the story reports the "generations of Perez" just as Genesis does many times over, tracing all the way back Adam.

And for us as Christians, the genealogy of the Redeemer runs through the the excellence of Boaz toward the poor and needy.  His was an excellence beyond the requirements of the Law.  His was an excellence which calls us to belong to the poor and to invite them to belong to us, to attend to their dignity in belonging.  It is not a call to put money in a box along the median.  And it is not a call to offer something with no expectations in return.  The dignity of belonging can really only be realized when we expect each other to be something.

Opportunities to belong may not always be taken by the poor among us, but Scripture calls us to ensure they are offered.

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